A discussion with Dan Fung: The past, present, and future of microbial detection

Dr. Fung started his career in microbial detection as a graduate student at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill when his professor asked him to identify several hundred cultures of bacteria from sewage. The work was so tedious that Dan thought "there must be a better way to do microbiology!" He then traveled to Iowa State University and pursued his Ph.D. working under Dr. Paul Hartman, whom Dan considers his mentor. Here, Dan began research on miniaturization of microbiology tests and developed the Miniaturized Microbiological Cultural and Viable Cell Count systems. Forty years later, Dr. Fung is recognized as a worldwide leader in microbial detection. He just completed advising his 100th graduate student; has instructed over 18,000 people; has lectured throughout the world; and has authored over 800 publications.

This summer, Dan completed his 27th annual workshop on rapid methods at Kansas State University, which is a program that has attracted over 4,000 participants from more than 60 countries. In 2005, Dan first invited a team from Purdue University and USDA-ARS to participate in his workshop. CFSE has now participated in this program for the past three years. We are glad for the opportunity and embrace our collaboration with Dr. Fung.

We had a chance to catch up with Dan and ask him the following questions:

What do you consider to be the most significant breakthroughs related to microbial detection in the past 40 years?

  • "Miniaturization from test tubes, miniaturized chambers, microwells, microarrays, biosensors, and nanotechnologies has greatly improved the capacity to study thousands of samples in a much more efficient manner.
  • The effective use of ELISA tests, instrumentation, sensors, PCR, microarrays, microchips, biochips, nanotechnology, and a variety of physical, chemical, biochemical methods.
  • Ingenious and effective sampling technologies for food, water, air, medical, environmental, and industrial samples have greatly helped to make analyses more accurate and efficient."

What was your most significant research finding or contribution?

  • "Miniaturization of microbial techniques (cultural methods and viable cell counts methods) directly and indirectly influenced the revolution of diagnostic kits and procedures in medical, food and environmental microbiology.
  • Development of detection methods for staphylococcal enterotoxins, Listeria monocytogenes, Escherichia coli O157:H7, and Clostridium perfringens.
  • Creation of dye-containing media for the rapid detection and differentiation of bacteria, yeast, and molds.
  • Advancement and promotion of enzymes systems, such as Oxyrase, for stimulating the rapid growth of foodborne pathogens."

Where have we made progress, and where have we failed to make progress?

"We have made great progress in sample preparation and rapid detection of target molecules and cells by a variety of sophisticated technologies and approaches. We now can identify microorganisms and classify them to the species, subspecies, and molecular levels very efficiently. We have not been able to effectively separate target organisms from the background food systems yet. And, there is no instant, on-line test for pathogens and may never be since microorganisms are so small compared with the food matrix. We still have much to do."

What technologies or approaches do you feel have the most promise for the future?

"It depends on what you want to find. I do believe nanotechnologies developed and used properly can greatly assist in the development of rapid detection and enumeration of pathogenic and non-pathogenic organisms. I think this is our future."

What do you think our greatest challenges will be in the future?

"I think we need to be able to:

  • Predict and detect the arrival of new and exotic microorganisms.
  • Control or eliminate pathogenic organisms better in food systems.
  • Educate and stimulate another generation of bright people to put their minds together to solve the problems at hand and the problems unseen."